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July 2013

The Shift to Industrial Networks

Automation GT can connect your automation systems’ controls to one platform, for increased management control, security, and operational efficiency.

By Kristen Keelin, Automation GT Marketing & Sales Operations

The progression of the internet and networked computing has had an effect on almost all business sectors and industries, some more significantly affected than others. Now, it is revolutionizing the automation industry. Or at least it will for Automation GT, a custom automation assembly house headquartered in Carlsbad, California. The focus of automation has traditionally been centered on the mechatronics of a stand-alone machine; the mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and controls engineering of a system. “Our vision at Automation GT”, says President and CEO Simon Grant, “is to expand from a simple mechatronic machine to a shared network of systems that can talk to each other and report to a management portal in real time”. The technology Grant foresees means that with a few clicks of a mouse, a COO sitting at his or her desk in Silicon Valley can pull a comparative summary of all systems installed in Shanghai or Buenos Aires and drill down on a specific machine to see its operational efficiency and what parts need service.

“What we’ve begun to do at Automation GT is to standardize the tools that automation systems operate on and network them to the same controls operating platform. Instead of various machines reporting (or not reporting) to separate and isolated data repositories, all machines report to one master platform where you can view data for each specific machine as well as a comparative summary view of all operating systems” exclaims Grant. “Now data becomes information”.

Currently machines are installed with custom code, custom configuration, custom reporting, and custom management. Instead of having a unique configuration for each machine, Grant suggests that systems be on a standardized platform so users can look at any machine through the same interface and view aggregate data that can be crunched and compared.

Automation GT can build machines on an integrated IT infrastructure so that users can store information on a shared database. With this in place, identity profiles can be set up for management and access control to the machine. The ability to read data or make code changes will only be permitted to authorized users upon login. “This level of regulation isn’t normally practiced because until now the technology didn’t exist. That is going to change and Automation GT is among the first custom automation houses to offer it. We have world-class control engineers who are already doing it for our customers that operate internationally” states Grant.

Another added bonus of placing automation systems onto a shared infrastructure is centralized “recipe” management. “We have a customer that uses automation to build patient specific medical devices. They have 700+ spreadsheets of code for any one order” says Grant.  For each assembly, a system operator manually plugs in the code to give the machine the set of brains it needs to assemble the specified product. The problem is that the spreadsheets are not controlled. “If someone accidently changes a number in there, no one knows. We suggest that all recipes be uploaded to a database so that when the system operator needs to change the recipe, he or she can simply select ‘Recipe No. 4 or ‘Recipe No. 4,652’”. All this can be done on the HMI directly or remotely through the shared server. The machine will reach out through the software up to the database, pull the selected recipe, put it on the machine and the machine will start running. “That recipe is managed and controlled so no one can change it. And if someone wants to change it you can program in change control on the server so the operator is required to fill in a form and say ‘this is how I’m going to modify it, this is how I’ve tested the new code, etc.’”. Furthermore, Grant goes on to explain how upon program modification, alerts can be set up to signify to management that Recipe No. 4,652 has been changed on Machine A by Operator X.

As the automation industry progresses, more and more companies will network their systems together. The level of control management, security, and information is unparalleled to any other applicable technology. “You need a unified relationship between your engineering group, your automation and controls group, and your IT group. When all those three are aligned and able to communicate, you have the ability to use the tools from the IT side, the controls and software side, and train your mechatronics to listen and talk to all of these. Once you have this union, this trifecta, it is a very powerful system” states Grant. The recent advances in networking, virtual machine technology, and cloud computing has allowed an elegant integration of automation and business systems. This opens up the analysis and reporting tools that manufacturing, engineering, and management are already comfortable using.